If you know anything about me at all, you know I love samples. I can have spent nights nerding out over a great flip. There really isn’t anything like it. How the beat, the sample and the vocals interact are the basic foundation of a song, but in some cases, a sample can be more than a sample. It can take center stage and become just as important the emcee's bars.
Instead of explaining myself any further, I need to just start sharing with you what I'm talking about.
For starters, Jake One shows us how it’s done on “Truth.”
Don't you love the way the sample works as the hook? It's not just in the background, it serves as the bridge between Freeway and Brother Ali, and perfectly sums up the entire song's concept. Similarly, one of my favorite samples from the past few years is courtesy of Bink. Yes, he did “Devil In A New Dress,” which is my favorite beat of all-time, but that's really more of traditional sampling. Dive into John Legend’s “Who Do We Think We Are.”
The sample has a traditional vibe—perfectly chopped, perfectly placed—but it’s even more impressive because the source is Jean Knight's classic “Mr. Big Stuff,” the perfect choice because it really drives home the concept of the song. “Mr. Big Stuff” is all about a guy who thinks he’s the shit, Ms. Knight brings him down a few pegs by letting him know he’s not all that. “Who Do We Think We Are” wrestles with that same idea. Legend ever so elegantly questions what all of the luxury, the glitz, and the glamor really mean. It’s the most beautiful existential crisis I've ever heard. Hell, even Rick Ross is able to stick to the theme of the song and that never happens. From start to finish this record is a conceptual masterpiece and it's the sample that set up the entire concept.
While Legend, Bink and Ross wrestled with materialism, UGK celebrated it on “Front, Back & Side to Side,” but they too use the sample as the driving force behind the song. This time it’s that one line from Eazy E. It’s amazing how one small line can spawn a brand new record.
There are plenty more examples - "A Milli," “Postman”—but “Ms. Fat Booty” must be highlighted. Actually, “Sunshine” is a better Mos Def example. Wait, no, I take it back. "Ms. Fat Booty" is better. Confused? Well, on “Sunshine” the sample is the hook, but on “Ms. Fat Booty” it has its own life. It serves as more of a guest vocal than a flip. It just feels more important.
Still, none of those are perfect examples. If we really want to get into samples that have their own life, we have to look at the early 2000’s, specifically Roc-A-Fella and The Diplomats. Sometimes that extra layer comes from rappers talking to the sample, or maybe it’s better described as the sample rapping with the rapper. I realize that reads weird, so let's let the music do the talking—there's no better place to start than Cam’ron’s “Oh Boy.”
Juelz and Cam literally stop rapping so the sample can finish their verses. The sample has more lines than Jay does on “Pop Style.” The sample as the center of the song really is a Diplomats thing. There’s “Get Em Girls,” “Oh Yes” (which samples the aforementioned “Mr. Postman”) and most importantly, “Down and Out.”
“Down and Out” is actually the best example, not necessarily because it’s the most impressively executed—that award goes to "Oh Boy”—but because it features and is co-produced by Kanye West. (The song was actually produced by Brian "All Day" Miller.) Did you really think an article about sampling wouldn’t eventually lead to Kanye? Ye's production discography is littered with examples of this technique, such as “Gone” (also with Cam), on hit single “Gold Digger,” more recently on “30 Hours,” “Make Her Say,” and one of my personal favorites, “Through The Wire.”
I could write an entire article on “Through The Wire” alone. Before I really knew anything about sampling it was Kanye's sample-work that drew me into his world. I remember being told the source of the sample was Chaka Khan’s “Through The Fire” and damn near losing my mind. It's crazy how your brain naturally mishears it as “through the wire.” Kanye samples are just so damn.... sample-y; they change how you hear a sample. Kanye loves this sample trick so much he even does it on remixes.
To understand what I’m really getting at, listen to Kanye’s “A Million and One (Remix).”
Now listen to the original.
All respect to Jay and Premo, but Kanye’s version is light years ahead. When I listen to Jay’s version all I can hear is that empty chorus. It’s missing the “something," the same something that exists on Kanye’s remix. How? By bringing that sample to the forefront and using it as a prop, the additional component adds this level of depth and engagement previously AWOL.
Speaking of engagement, can we talk about how Juicy J and DJ Paul-based "Int'l Players Anthem" around Willie Hutch's "I Choose You"? Not only do they flip it six different ways, but the way the "I Choose You" engines that track is exactly what I've been talking about here. It jumps out at you, it bridges the verses and it fits the theme to perfection. There's no better song to end this article (or any article for that matter) than "International Players Anthem."
I love sampling because it requires a creative mind, a vision, taking something old and turning it into something new. Often you have to dig for the sample, it’s cool hearing a drum kick or a bass line you recognize, but sometimes I love when it slaps you in the face and you can’t focus on anything else. It's a commitment to completion, to doing something different and better, that ties the song together and gives it another layer of enjoyment.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a million times more: fuck Michael McDonald! Sampling is the greatest!
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly credited Kanye West as the sole producer of Cam'ron's "Down and Out," but the record was co-produced by Brian "All Day" Miller.